United Nations experts say Australia’s Great Barrier Reef should be listed as a World Heritage Site that is “in danger”.
In a new UNESCO-commissioned report on Monday, the panel said the world’s biggest coral reef ecosystem was being affected significantly by climate change and that its resilience has been “substantially compromised”.
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Australia has lobbied for years to keep the reef – which contributes 6.4 billion Australian dollars ($4.3bn) to the economy – off the endangered list for fear it could bring an end to the ecosystem’s World Heritage status and reduce its attractiveness to tourists.
Prior to COVID-19, about 2 million tourists visited the reef located off Australia’s northeast coast every year, according to official data, providing jobs for 64,000 people.
Australian environment minister Tanya Plibersek acknowledged that the reef was under threat but said putting it on UNESCO’s “World Heritage in Danger” list would be a step too far.
“We’ll clearly make the point to UNESCO that there is no need to single the Great Barrier Reef out in this way,” she told reporters.
She added that the report was a reflection on Australia’s previous conservative government, which was voted out of office in May after nine years in power, and said the new centre-left Labor Party government had already addressed several of the report’s concerns, including action on climate change.
Since taking office, the Labor government has pledged to spend 1.2 billion Australian dollars ($800m) in coming years to protect the reef. The parliament in September passed legislation for net zero emissions by 2050.
Plibersek also noted that her government had cancelled the previous administration’s plans to build two major dams in Queensland state that would have affected the reef’s water quality.
“If this World Heritage Site is in danger, then most World Heritage Sites around the world are in danger from climate change,” she said.
The report, written by experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and UNESCO, acknowledged Australia’s commitment to protecting the reef.
But it found that despite the “unparalleled science and management efforts”, the reef still faced “considerable pressures” linked to climate change and pollution from agricultural runoff.
Australian scientists reported in May that 91 percent of the reef’s coral had been damaged by bleaching after a prolonged summer heatwave, the fourth such mass event in seven years. It was the first time on record that the reef had suffered bleaching during a La Nina weather cycle, which is associated with cooler Pacific Ocean temperatures.
Bleaching in 2016, 2017 and 2020 also damaged two-thirds of the coral.
Corals can survive a bleaching event but it can stunt their growth and affect reproduction.
The independent Great Barrier Reef Foundation said it was already aware of the series of threats identified in the UN report but that the recommendation to add the reef to the endangered list was premature.
“The Great Barrier Reef is a wonder, she’s got her challenges, but she’s definitely not on her last legs in any case,” Managing Director Anna Marsden told the Reuters news agency.
Marine biologist Jodie Rummer said the UNESCO report showed Australia had more work to do.
“Our action now will determine the frequency and severity of marine heatwaves the reef will face over the coming years,” she said.